Posts Tagged ‘jack kornfield’

sk3Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.

In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate.

The development of awareness, personal, ethical, and social, is an essential, lifelong project. It can spell the difference between happiness or unhappiness, life or death. And awareness is no less essential in Zen practice, where it is seen as the foundation of morality, insight, and compassionate wisdom. But the term awareness, as used in Buddhist teachings, means something rather different from the concept summarized above. From the Buddhist perspective, awareness is not something we can turn on or off at will or channel in one direction or another. It is not an aspect of thinking. Rather, it is a changeless, luminous presence, common to us all, which embraces our sensations, feelings, thoughts, mental states, and other transitory phenomena. As the Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche puts it, awareness is “something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place.” The background to whatever we’re experiencing, it has been likened in various contexts to a womb, the ocean, and the open sky.

“Awareness,” writes the Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, “has no form or color. It is beyond presence or absence, coming or going.” Void of those distinguishing characteristics, awareness also defies description. However concrete or refined our language may be, and however skillfully we may deploy it, it can do no more than point in the direction of awareness, like a finger pointing toward the moon.  As with other ineffable mysteries, the nature of “pure awareness,” as it is sometimes called, lies well beyond our words and concepts.

At the same time, the salient qualities of pure awareness, as directly experienced in our minds and bodies, can be concretely described. In her book True Refuge, Tara Brach, another Vipassana teacher, identifies three such qualities, the first being “emptiness,” or openness. Awareness, she observes, is “devoid of any form, of any center or boundary, of any owner or inherent self, of any solidity.” A second quality is “awakeness,” or “wakefulness,” which Brach describes as “a luminosity of continual knowing.”  And a third is tenderness, or “warmth,” which she defines as “the expression of unconditional love or compassion.” This general term also includes sympathetic joy, appreciation, and the capacity to heal.

Awareness of this kind is sometimes called natural awareness. It stands in no need of being heightened, broadened, or increased, being always present and always sufficient. Buddhist teachers sometimes speak of “cultivating” awareness through continuous mindfulness, but the challenge, in my experience, lies less in cultivating awareness than in gaining access to its healing presence.  One proven way to do that is take the “backward step that illuminates the self,” as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253 CE), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, exhorts us to do. By sitting still and letting “body and mind fall away,” we relinquish all striving for attainment. We rest in the spaciousness of open awareness.

For those inclined toward a more active practice, an alternative may be found in the teachings of Bassui Takusho, a 14th-century Rinzai Zen master. When you encounter a thing, Bassui advises, ask, “What is this?” When you hear a sound, ask, “Who hears the sound?”  By asking those questions, over and again, we can pierce our layers of social conditioning. We can see through our delusions, our dualistic thinking, and our constructed identities and awaken to the boundless dimension of our being. And suddenly or gradually, in a moment’s intuition or after years of practice, we can come home to our natural awareness.


Sogyal Rinpoche, quoted by Tara Brach in True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2013), 252.

Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology  (Bantam, 2008), 44.

Brach, True Refuge, 261-263.

Photo: Skaneateles Lake, by Robin Howard.



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800px-UH-1H_Flying_over_ROCA_Infantry_School_Ground_20120211Last week two Army helicopters flew over the village of Alfred, New York. Their thunder, my wife confided, unnerved her as never before.

In the wake of the mass shootings in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino, fear has become a focus of national attention. In his address to the nation on December 6, President Obama sought to reassure us. “Freedom,” he asserted, “is more powerful than fear.” Perhaps it is in the long run, but for the time being, how can we best address the growing presence of fear in our daily lives? And how can the practice of meditation help us in that effort? (more…)

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Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years? (more…)

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William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

According to a recent report on the NBC Nightly News, American police have been running stop signs and causing serious accidents, so distracted have they become by the computers in their cars. To address the problem, the Fort Wayne, Indiana police department has installed devices that freeze the computer’s keys whenever the patrol car’s speed exceeds fifteen miles per hour.

This situation may be uniquely ironic, but the underlying problem is hardly peculiar to the police. On the contrary, in the age of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile devices, distraction has become endemic. With so many objects summoning our attention, where shall we direct it? On what objects should we place our minds? (more…)

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77. Near and far

Twenty-five years ago, Markus Koch was a defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins. During his third season, he broke his lumbar vertebrae, but he continued to play for three more years. Now in his late forties, he suffers from depression, and when he stands for extended periods of time, his legs go numb.

Recently, Markus Koch reflected on the gap between football fans watching the game at home and the physical experience of the players on the field. To close that gap, he facetiously suggested, players might be fitted with a mouth guard that “registers the impact they’re getting on the field, and at certain g-forces the helmet shell would crack and explode and leak gray matter and blood.” Or, conversely, the fan might be fitted with an adjustable pneumatic suit, which would be “telemetrically linked to a player on the field.” In that way the fan could “experience what the player is going through.” (more…)

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If you have looked hard at a single object, you may have found that an image of the object lingers even after you’ve looked away.

Such is my experience every morning, when I drink green tea from a small porcelain cup. Looking down, I see the cup’s white rim, which forms a perfect circle. Looking up, I see that same circle, now in black, projected against the bamboo rug.  In its main features the image resembles the enso, or Zen circle–a symbol of enlightenment and absolute reality.

Not all images are so benign, nor is their duration so brief. The poet Ezra Pound famously defined the image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” And if that image is laden with emotional content, it may be virtually ineradicable. In her poem “Quai d’ Orleans,” Elizabeth Bishop observes barges on the river Seine, comparing their wakes to giant oak leaves, which extinguish themselves on the sides of the quay. Deepening her analogy, Bishop contrasts the disappearance of the wakes with the endurance of human memories, especially memories of loss. “If what we see could forget us half as easily,” she reflects, “as it does itself—but for life we’ll not be rid / of the leaves’ fossils.”*

Zen meditation is essentially a process of stopping and looking. Amidst the multiple distractions of everyday life, the images in our psyches may well escape notice, but when we sit still, follow our breathing, and have a look at our interior lives, those images often return with a vengeance, bearing their cargo of memories and associations. How, if at all, should we respond to them? What, if anything, should we do?

Perhaps the most reflexive response is to pursue the image: to dwell in the past. Encountering the image of a barge, for example, I might recall the scenes of my childhood, when I sat for hours on the banks of the Mississippi River, watching the barges pass. Pushed by powerful “towboats,” those massive platforms transported steel, coal, and other freight north toward Lock and Dam 13. Viewed from a distance, the barges appeared to be moving slowly, as they rounded the bend and gradually disappeared. But in fact they were moving at a rapid, dangerous clip, and boaters were well advised to stay out of their way. Remembering their bulk and speed, I recall that one of my schoolmates, a third grader named Michael Stone, drowned one night beneath a barge. A few days earlier, I had wrestled with him on the playground.

Such memories haunt us, and it is tempting to pursue them. But to do so is not the way of Zen meditation, whose aim is situate our minds and hearts, vividly and continuously, in the reality of the present moment. The Bhaddekaratta Sutta (Sutra on the Better Way of Living Alone), a guiding text for Zen practitioners, states this aim directly:

Do not pursue the past.

Do not lose yourself in the future.

The past no longer is.

The future has not yet come.

Looking deeply at life as it is

in the very here and now,

the practitioner dwells

in stability and freedom.

The sutra goes on to explain what is meant by “pursuing the past”:

When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks about these things and his mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past.

By contrast, when a person thinks about those same things but his mind is neither “enslaved by nor attached” to them, then that person is not “pursuing the past.”**

To think about the past without being enslaved by it is a formidable challenge, but there are ways of meeting that challenge. Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist and renowned Vipassana teacher, advises us to heal the wounds in our psyches by bringing meditative awareness—“that which knows”—to our painful memories. Similarly, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to review the past and “observe it deeply” while “standing firmly in the present.” In that way our destructive memories can be transformed into something constructive. In either case, the method is first to ground ourselves in the present, and second, to cultivate a generous, clear awareness, in which images from the past, however troubling or enticing, arrive and last for a while but do not become objects of obsessive thought. Like barges observed from a river bank, they interest but do not overwhelm us.


* Elizabeth Bishop, “Quai d’ Orleans,” The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1984), 28.

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment (Parallax, 1990), 6.

Enso (Zen circle) by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi.

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